[18 June 2008]
A subject that refuses to stay confined to the role of object. A narrator whose text first implicitly, then explicitly, psychoanalyzes that same narrator. Subjectivity and objectivity locked in a clear and present battle of mediation. Myth and meaning borrowing from history and the oases in the real to create fiction.
Andrew Foster Altschul’s Lady Lazarus presents the critic with a challenge: How to unpack and analyze the text that deconstructs itself? The feedback loop is total, and each gesture revealed to be recursive—every critique already anticipated and incorporated into the work itself. For every stunt and device, there is the winking nod of self-awareness, and beyond even that a comforting arm around the reader’s shoulder, pointing to and chuckling about the fact that each is not only a stunt, but a ploy. Lady Lazarus is a naked lunch. The circuit is closed. The simulacrum ironically, paradoxically, signifies everything.
If you’re a fan of postmodern fiction, you should already be intrigued, maybe even hooked. All the usual juicy conceits are in play here, and if not the apotheosis of intellectual gamesmanship, then Lady Lazarus is certainly a high-mark for the intricately constructed dialogue between text and reader. As soon as the first of the tell-tale footnotes begin, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory, constructing a fictive reality from referents and thesaurus-level vocabulary, and Altschul will let you have your fun.
Of course, if you hate this kind of thing, and think that po-mo fiction is all style and no substance—sacrificing story for the sake of sleight-of-hand and pretension—then all of this will probably have turned you off by now.
Except that Lady Lazarus will undercut those judgments by backing you up. As much as Altschul has created an excellent example of the form, it is also a satire of itself. All of its pretensions are accompanied by a (sometimes gentle, sometimes not) self-mockery. Altschul plays both sides of the fence, pulling off tricks and then revealing the phoniness of the illusion with a wry smile. Rather than being all-too-academic, Lady Lazarus toys with these conventions in a commentary on the issue of their worth, and manages to reaffirm the role of story in the process.
That story is one of Calliope Bird Morath, anarchic poet and daughter of rock and roll royalty. When Calliope is a mere four years old, her father, Brandt Morath—singer, guitarist, and founder of Terrible Children, the band of the 1990s, credited with galvanizing a generation and saving rock music—blows his brains out in front of her (maybe) in his basement studio. Calliope is left in the manic care of her mother, Penelope, herself a famously volatile musician and now curator of an estate picked apart by rabid media, worshiped by mourner-fans who camp out on the Morath mansion’s front lawn, and embattled in legal proceedings over box sets, biographies, and movie rights. And when Penelope draws the curtains of the house tight in an attempt to shut out the spotlight, refusing to allow any discussion of her husband’s suicide, Calliope retreats into a fortress of mute silence.
Her salvation comes in the form of words—language breaking through the silence in a flood of sing-song poetry and setting her on a course that takes her into the world of the poem as the pinnacle act of communication. Growing up in surreal conditions, Calliope emerges into adulthood a torn, powerful, and tremulously unhinged young woman who cannot escape her own violent history as it gets force-fed to her and reified by images of her world-famous suicide father. And this secondhand celebrity makes her famous in her own right, continuing the cycle by elevating her poetry to the status of literary rock-stardom, enabling and undermining her own sense of identity until her life cannot escape the gravity of self-destruction at the heart of creation. Calliope’s whole life becomes an increasingly frantic search for Self and Memory, both of which are muddled and distorted by media.
That overly tidy summary doesn’t really do much to convey Lady Lazarus‘s interest, however. It’s in the structuring of the novel that Altschul truly proves his deft talents. Calliope’s tale is bifurcated between two voices in a semiotic dance. On one end, you have an observer narrator detailing the historical and objective Calliope ... a narrator named Andrew Altschul. On the other you have the subjective Calliope in her own voice, offering a first-person account of her own uncertain internality. Neither voice, however, is truly authoritative (in the full sense of the word). Altschul the Narrator is dogmatically locked into a quest for Truth, one that systematically reveals itself to be obsessive-compulsive and that lionizes Calliope as biographical subject to such a degree that the reader is forced to see how delusional Altschul the Narrator is—both in his adherence to objectivity and about Calliope herself.
Calliope’s own subjective accounts, meanwhile, are filled with a poesis that makes her explanations incomplete and sometimes feverish. Because Calliope’s own identity is in question, she can’t provide it with clarity. What’s more, she directly challenges the reader, acknowledging us as voyeurs, and alternating between dangling tantalizing revelations and rebuffing our desire to know more. Ultimately, unlike the stated-as-written biography of Altschul the Narrator, we don’t even know where the first-person account of Calliope “comes from”, how it got here.
And so a good deal of the real story takes place between the lines, with Altschul the Author teasing the reader-observer into connecting the contradictory threads of both biographer and autobiographer to create the true account in our own minds, all the while holding up the impossibility of a “real” story.
Altschul (the Author) manages to evoke all this by employing many of the tropes of po-mo fiction as both details and foils. Filled with referents real and fictional, the world of Calliope covers entertainment celebrities, Marxist theory, Buddhist fetishization, rock stars and reporters, pop periodicals and academic journals, PR agents, Lacanian psychoanalysis, alchemy, and literature, all while leaning heavily on our world’s cultural resonance of Nirvana (the band) and the ballad of Kurt and Courtney. Altschul the narrator provides meticulous footnotes (half fictional source, half real) that reveal their author as much as anything, while Calliope provides an interpretive skein of poetry. The list of references, sources, and permissions at the back of Lady Lazarus is a fascinating collection in its own right.
If you’ve read this far in the review, you might be thinking (or have already thought), a ha! Footnotes? Meta-narrative? An Apollo-Dionysus exploration of culture and media? You’ve spotted your critical “in”, and are ready to declare Altschul an imitator, maybe even a rip-off, of David Foster Wallace. Well, yes and no. You’re right to see the parallels (even without having read the book), but Altschul the Author saw that one coming from a mile away. He’s been waiting for you to get here. Nearly 4/5 of the way through the book, Altschul the Narrator suddenly refers to an interview with Calliope conducted by Wallace, poking fun at the author’s obliqueness and even footnoting that the use of Wallace’s full name, and particularly the middle-name “Foster”, is an obvious affectation ... despite the fact that Lady Lazarus bears the name “Andrew Foster Altschul” on its cover. It’s no accident that Altschul waits so long to slip that one in. (See what I mean about being preemptively anticipated?)
And yet here is the one opening and comparison that does provide room for critique. Like his brother in middle name and po-mo fiction, Altschul’s ending somehow feels unsatisfying. After a carefully crafted mystery of hints and questions, some resolution is necessary. But the conclusion of Calliope’s tale in a haze of magical realism feels, if not exactly forced, then a little fanciful. Then again, that might be inevitable in fiction like this. The most jarring part of any roller coaster ride is at the end, when it suddenly slows to a halt. After the hyperreal, dissolution and resolution are bound to be a bit of a let-down.
As previously stated, some people go in for this kind of thing, and others don’t. If you’ve found such convoluted stunt writing to be too much flash and empty signification, Lady Lazarus is probably not going to change your mind, even if it acknowledges your judgment. But if you enjoy going along for the postmodern ride and playing the game, especially one that doesn’t turn the wry smile into a smirk, Altschul’s debut makes an excellent addition to the canon, and you should read this book.